Senators discuss changes to criminal justice bill amid GOP opposition

Greg Nash
A bipartisan group of senators supporting a President Trump-backed criminal justice bill is discussing changes to the legislation as they try to win over more Republicans.

Senators involved in the talks say the potential changes are meant to address concerns from the GOP caucus. A small but vocal wing remain adamantly opposed to the legislation, and several others have said they are wary about the impacts of the bill, lowering the prospects of passing it before the end of the year.
{mosads}Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, stopped short of saying senators were rewriting parts of the legislation but said they are trying to address concerns from undecided Republicans.
“I think all I should say is that we’re taking into consideration the concerns that a lot of members in our conference had, the ones who are undecided, and we’re seeing what we can do to accommodate them and getting more cosponsors,” Grassley said on Thursday.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added that any potential revisions would be aimed at increasing the number of supporters within the Senate Republican caucus but without alienating Democrats.
“We’re discussing it in terms of how to increase the number of votes for it. There are lots of people with ideas about how to increase Republican votes but usually at the expensive of Democratic votes,” he said. “It’s a very delicate balance. It’s a tricky equation.”
Changes to the legislation could make it harder for senators to get the measure to Trump’s desk before 2019. Senators have 10 session days before they are scheduled to leave for the year. During that time they’re expected to tackle a Dec. 7 government funding bill, a farm bill and a debate on U.S.-Saudi relations.
Trump threw his support behind the Senate’s criminal justice bill earlier this month, touting it as “tough on crime.” The legislation would take a House-passed prison reform bill and add in four changes to sentencing laws, including lowering mandatory minimums for some drug-related felonies and retroactively applying the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.
But the president’s support has yet to quell dug-in conservative opposition or resulted in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreeing to give the legislation a vote on the Senate floor.
An administration official told The Hill that the White House asked GOP sponsors of the legislation to make changes addressing law enforcement concerns and, in turn, win over some of the more skeptical Republicans.
Grassley denied Thursday that the White House asked for changes to the bill.
One potential change would be to add the list of crimes that would exclude an individual from “earned time” credits that allow an inmate to take days off their sentence for completing certain programs or activities.
“What has happened is that Tom Cotton has basically challenged his caucus to go through the criminal code and to come up with some new crimes that are not excluded in the prison reform section,” Durbin said, referring to one of Arkansas’s Republican senators.
Asked if Cotton and others were using the potential changes as pretense for stalling the bill, Durbin quipped, “that would question the motive of a colleague.”
Cotton has been one of the most vocal opponents of the Senate legislation. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), when asked about Cotton’s objections, told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday, “I disagree with every single syllable he’s uttered on that.”
Conservatives have seized on opposition to the bill from the National Sheriffs’ Association, which warned in a Nov. 15 letter to Senate leadership that the legislation amounted to a “social experiment.” 

“The current draft of the First Step legislation remains troubling to the leaders of law enforcement,” the group wrote.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said discussions were ongoing about potential changes to the bill to win over fellow Republicans.
“Discussions are ongoing to see if we could come up with a consensus package or one that would at least get support from a substantial majority of Republicans,” Cornyn said on Thursday.
He added that one suggested change would be to “embrace” the revisions recommend by the National Sheriffs’ Association, which outlined five suggested changes in its letter to leadership. Cornyn said that could win over undecided Republicans like himself.
Senators and Vice President Pence discussed the Senate bill during a closed-door lunch this week, including debating both the merits of the legislation and when it should be taken up.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said after the lunch that there were likely some changes that could be made to win over undecided Republican senators.  
“I feel good about it. Can you make a few changes? Yes. If you do, does that get most people on board? Probably,” Graham said this week. “If it doesn’t happen this year, it’s probably never going to happen.”
Tags Chuck Grassley Dick Durbin Donald Trump John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Tom Cotton
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